ON March 25 this year, the Scottish Executive drew a rough shape on to the map of the Highlands and claimed everything within that space as part of the new Cairngorm National Park. Same old place, slightly different name. Almost everybody concerned is confident that this invisible upgrade will enhance the life of the area.
They know that the very words “national park” send out a beacon to potential wanderers around the world affirming a certain standard of natural beauty and a commitment to protecting it. Some locals do still have reservations about how and where the line was drawn, and the choice of those appointed to run the park when it opens officially tomorrow. The hills themselves are silent on the issue.
The Cairngorms, as defined by the new boundary, are 1466 square miles of rawness. The area has been Scotland’s zone of highest, roughest ground and most turbulent sky since way before humans ever went there. And now that we’re calling it a national park (as well as being the biggest in the UK it will be one of the biggest in Europe), it’s a safe bet that more humans than ever will go. The majority of them will have a grand time, humbled and reflective as poets or challenged and focused as adventurers. But some will get lost, or stuck, or fall and break. The Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Association repeats the same simple but wearily experienced phrase again and again in their brochures and leaflets:
“The hills are beautiful, but they can be merciless”. And when luck, weather, or judgement turn bad in the Cairngorms, their team supplies the only mercy available. Forty men and two women ready to drop what they’re doing to come search for you, find you, and save you. They are, in terms of man-hours spent on prolonged searches, the busiest rescue team in the country, and they find it likely that they’ll be even busier over the coming months and years.
“Aye, we’re the Heroes of the White Hell,” says member Donnie Williamson on a quiet Monday afternoon in Aviemore’s Bridge Inn, quoting an excitable tabloid headline that followed one of their more dramatic winter rescues. “Make sure you write that down.” If the team had a poster-boy – they’re too modest and mocking to ever promote themselves beyond essential fund-raising activities – it would have to be Williamson. He’s a born Highlander with a red face, red beard, and long red hair, and he looks like he could carry an injured yak down a mountain over his shoulders.
And like all the others, he’s an unpaid volunteer. “I’m a self-employed joiner, so I always go on a call-out. Anything to get out of work.” His friends Willie Anderson and Gordon Stewart are teachers at a local high school.
“So if it’s a rescue in the middle of the week,” says Anderson, “we’re both off like ‘whoom!’.” “But the flipside of that,” mutters Stewart, “is when the rescue goes on all night, and then you’re back in teaching the brats the next morning.”
Spend any length of time with the team and you hear all about the bright side and the flipside. I meet a few of them in the pub, and several more back at their base, a newly converted church in nearby Inverdruie. They joke around a lot. Many of them are old friends who’ve been volunteers since the 1970s and early 1980s, mountain- lovers who go climbing together in their free time.
Ask any of them why they do it and they talk about the “good craic, the social side of it, the boys”. But then they tell you what “horrendous” work it can be, being phoned at one in the morning to help scour a huge area of brutal territory, hauling smashed or frozen bodies up and down cliffs on stretchers. Most people have helicopters in their heads when they think of mountain rescues, and the team can call in a Sea King chopper from the RAF base at Lossiemouth. But often violent weather makes flying too hazardous, and casualties have to be carried out, all the way, with muscle and rope.
“It can take 10 or 12 hours to stretcher out a casualty,” says John Allen, “whether they’re dead or alive. That might be eight people working in shifts of maybe five minutes at a time. It’s pretty heavy going.”
Allen, a pharmacist, veteran climber, and very wry guy, has been on the team since 1972, and has led it since 1988. He’s basically the bottom line – someone goes missing in the hills, someone else calls the police, and the police call Allen.
Mountain rescue in the Cairgorms is technically the responsibility of the Northern Constabulary – it’s a 999 call – but relies entirely on the willingness of Allen and his friends to do it. “The police don’t have the manpower or the expertise to effect rescues,” he says. “That’s why they rely on civilian teams like us. And that’s why we say that whatever we do, we’re always right. “In many cases,” he adds, “these people would die otherwise, because nobody else can go and get them.”
Today, the team seem exasperated at the way the government and the police seem to take this work for granted. Greater standards of training and equipment are demanded by health and safety directives, but the team’s token cut of the police force budget hasn’t been raised for about three decades, forcing the Association to rely on donations and sponsorship. Jack McConnell was shouted down by rescue teams at a meeting earler this year when he made indefinite promises about improving the arrangement. “Yeah, he got a bit of a row,” says Williamson, grinning. I would pay cash to see Williamson and McConnell debate the issue in a locked room.
To hear Allen tell it, mountain rescue is detective work first. Getting the names, the facts, asking around, checking intended routes, assessing the hazards of the time and place. Deciding how big the problem is.
“We don’t just rush off into the hills,” he says, “which some people seem to expect. We think about it first, assess whether it’s a genuine emergency.”
Plenty of the searches turn out to be anti-climaxes, wastes of time, and funny stories – the pair of stoned hikers who had to be rescued two days in a row, the RAF lad who was stranded on a ski- lift when it was shut down for the night, the boy who hid up a tree and turned up in an off-licence, the man who left all his clothes next to a notorious suicide spot and turned up two days later in a kilt at a Little Chef in Tomatin. Other stories aren’t so amusing. “We had a lot of broken people in the winter,” says Allen, and everyone else nods.
They do rescue plenty of fools, people who underestimate the often vicious conditions, who presume that “hill” always refers to a gentle surface. As professional mountain guide John Lyall puts it, “the skills required to climb in Scotland, especially on the Cairngorm plateau, equip you for anywhere else in the world”. Anybody can be unlucky, or make a bad decision, and break the rule that walkers learn with experience, which Williamson sums up as: “Turn back earlier.”
Most of the team admit to having suffered injuries themselves, and some have had to be rescued by their friends. They laugh about it, like they do about almost everything, but Lyall remembers finding it comforting to hear familiar voices when he was avalanched. He remarks that “most of us have lost friends on mountains”. They also recover their share of dead strangers. They describe a callout a week previous, for a young German reported missing. Allen sent a search party straight away. “I thought there was a 50/50 chance of finding him alive,” he says. “It’s a big cliff area, the ground was wet, and he didn’t know his way around.” When they found him he was dead, having fallen about 300 feet.
Heather Morning, one of the team’s two female members, later tells me about discovering the body – the first dead person she’s ever seen. It’s a weird, unsettling story, I’ve had the image as she described it in my head for days – the kid’s upturned face caught in the flashlight beam, total silence, mist all around.
“That is the job,” she says. “But I’ve been feeling strange on the mountains all week. I used to feel absolutely confident up there, but it’s shaken me a bit.” She’s much more open about this than the men, whose experience has made them, let’s say, ‘professionally philosophical’ about death. Not blase. Not callous. Something else. They seem to laugh about absurd, horrific details – like accidentally pulling the arm off a frozen corpse when lifting it – because that’s a more purely effective reaction than any of the alternatives. “There are always jokes,” says Williamson. “So you don’t let it get to you.”
“That’s just how we do it,” says Allen. “You make light of it, and it’s less of a hassle.” They go quiet for a moment, and then someone starts another story.